We’re lost, but we’re making good time.
If our swarm exists, and is in some sense alive, what might our near future be? Looking at our swarm’s past phase changes it’s easy to see differences between the caterpillar and the butterfly, but not the pupa in between. That’s when it was busy digesting most of its own body and rebuilding itself into a new form. In the last 12 millennia our swarm has pupated again and again, turning many of us from foragers to farmers to factory hands to file clerks. Today it again seems to be pupating. But into what?
For our last five millennia or so, predicting at least some rough outline of our future used to be easy—or easier, anyway. At some time or other, some famine would hit, some plague would spread, some army would invade—the only thing we wouldn’t know was when. But while such events would enter our history books, what would actually change? The spread of our languages, beliefs, gene lines, and such, might change, but our physical, institutional, and mental tools usually wouldn’t change much, if at all. Even when they did, they usually wouldn’t change fast. Or if they did, such rapid change wouldn’t spread far. So most of our lives wouldn’t change much. Of course, a few of our new tools, like the printing press, did lead to abrupt change, but those were rare, and even they took a long while to spread around the planet. So after most of our disruptions, life would mostly go back to what it was before. The centuries passed, but they didn’t change. Today, though, we’re in a new century and we may face an unknowable future. But even that isn’t entirely new. Our future started getting very foggy when we began changing our transport two centuries ago.
Before the early 1800s, 60 miles on land was a long way away—about two days away for a few of us, and up to two weeks away for almost all of us. Thus, in the Netherlands at the end of the 1600s, we, on average, traveled about 25 miles a year. All over the globe, our most common conveyance was the farm wagon, which averaged two to four miles an hour—walking speed. The stagecoach, the fastest thing on the planet, topped out at about 14 miles an hour. But when roads might have ruts up to four feet deep, eight to ten miles an hour was its more normal top speed—and that was only for a well-sprung coach pulled by four fit horses on a good road in good weather. Plus, for it to maintain even eight miles an hour yet not kill its horses, we had to change them every hour or so, which meant inns or posting houses. That was true for riders, too. Further, a horse could break a leg, a coach could lose a wheel, and a rider or driver might get lost, stuck in mud, or meet with bandits. Also, sunset on the road usually meant an overnight stay, especially if it was a moonless night. Traveling in the dark before headlights, streetlamps, paved roads, hotels, and police was crazy.
Thus, the 60 miles from London to Oxford might take two days. The 80 miles from Paris to Rouen took about three days. The 100 miles from New York to Philadelphia took at least two days. The 200 miles from New York to Boston took at least three days. London to Manchester—200 miles—took over three days. Paris to Lyon—300 miles—took around 11 days. London to Edinburgh—330 miles—could take two weeks; and it wasn’t unusual to make a will before starting. From Ipswich, on England’s east coast, the Netherlands was nearer by ship than London was by horse, even though London was only 80 miles away. From Dorset, on England’s south coast, Scotland might as well have been Africa. The fastest way to get to either place was by ship, and the sea distances were the same. In the United States, it cost as much to move a ton of goods 30 miles over land as it did to ship it 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. In Liverpool, goods often sailed to New York faster than they trundled to Manchester—just 34 miles away. And all those timescales were for the rich. For the poor, which was nearly all of us, multiply by seven.
By the 1820s, though, with the steam engine spreading, and with the railroad and the steamboat coming along, everything began to change. However, none of us correctly foresaw that. It was too big a change, and it happened too fast.
In Britain, railroad proponents foretold that horses were doomed—because they would soon be slower than locomotives. Carriage-trade companies, though, argued that the iron horse was too noisy, too dangerous, and too much of a change from our age-old way—so, few of us would accept it. Horseflesh fanciers, too, argued that iron horses would never prevail against the fleshy kind—because that would destroy fox-hunting. Even the army got involved, for without horses, cavalry troops were doomed.
Neither side of the argument could foresee the stigmergic effects of a large and installed toolbox. Both were wrong.
Before 1830, 36 stagecoaches daily ran between Liverpool and Manchester. Then came the first railroad linking the two. Within a year, 70,000 passengers had ridden the rails. That surprised everybody. Just a few years later, all those stagecoaches died—as did all the inns and posting houses they had relied on, and that had relied on them. The new rail link—traveling at a staggering 17 miles an hour—wasn’t just faster, it was smoother and cheaper. At first, we rode it just because it was new and fun. But soon, because of it, more of us could get ourselves and our goods to work or market. Plus, more of us could come to live in the newly linked hubs. Also, more of us could move farther away from the noise, stench, and smoke of the hubs while still working there. The railroad spread so much and so fast that soon pretty much everyone was predicting that horses were doomed.
But that, too, was wrong.
Extending the railroad to each of our doors cost too much, just as today extending fiberoptics to each of our homes cost too much. So the carriage trade, after its near-death experience on long-haul trips, roared back to life for shorter trips. Then as it grew, we moved yet farther away from city centers. Plus, the rising convenience and falling cost drew yet more of us to the hubs. So our cities exploded. But all of that just meant yet more urban horses. The railroads, without horses to take us to and from their stations, “would have been like stranded whales, giants unable to use their strength.”
Then, driven by rising demand, the carriage trade invented horse-drawn cabriolets and omnibuses to carry ever more of us in the cities at lower cost. As city transport prices fell, we demanded more of it in our usual autocatalytic way. By 1851, London horses were dropping about 1,000 tons of dung on the streets a week. Just a generation later, that was up to around 1,000 tons a day. As early as the 1860s, London omnibuses alone carried over 41 million of us a year. Further, as Britain as a whole grew richer, those of us there could afford more of everything, including private carriages, which meant yet more horses. Horse-drawn transport quadrupled for light carriages, and more than doubled for heavy ones. So horses were more in demand than ever. By century’s end, some of us were predicting that our newly huge cities were doomed—because we would all drown in horse dung.
But that, too, was wrong.
By then, the combustion engine had come along and cabriolets and omnibuses soon turned into cabs and buses. Urban demand for horses in Britain peaked in 1901, then rapidly began to die. But attachment to horses remained strong. The car, like the locomotive before it, was no instant success.
In the United States in 1896, Lippincott’s stated that “wide-spread adoption of the motor-driven vehicle... in this country is open to serious doubt.... Americans are a horse-loving nation. Here... [the horse] has reached his highest development as a racer. He is an animal, moreover, that inspires love and evokes the sense of companionship. He responds quickly to the kind word and the caress. Under humane treatment he is not only perfectly tractable, but he surprises by his intelligence.” In 1902, the New York Times predicted that “Automobiling.... prices ... will never be sufficiently low to make them as widely popular as were bicycles.” Many farmers called the car the ‘devil wagon.’ To them, it encouraged nubile sex. Anyway, it was too fragile to use. Besides, it was too costly to buy. Clearly it was a rich man’s toy. Obviously it would never catch on outside the sin-soaked cities.
But that, too, was wrong.
Cars grew cheaper, more robust, and more flexible. Soon, farmers could use one as a stationary power source to run bucksaws, threshers, silo blowers, conveyors, and other farm machines. They could also use one as a tractor to pull farm equipment over their fields. Plus, they could more quickly get from place to place, and carry more produce to market.
The car wasn’t just a new kind of workhorse, or a bedroom on wheels. As with the railroad before it, the car changed the opportunities of many women, which led to many more stigmergic changes. With a car, a rural family could reach more doctors, larger libraries, urban churches, and urban amusements. So rural isolation, rural church authority, family cohesion, parental authority, and opportunities for female work, shopping, learning, and amusement, all changed.
Like the railroad before it, the car stopped being a luxury for the few, becoming instead a necessity for the many. The number of cars in the United States exploded. By 1927, a car magazine would write that “there are millions of women drivers where there were only hundreds a few years ago.... every time a woman learns to drive—and thousands do every year—it is a threat at yesterday’s order of things.”
Likely, though, that wasn’t the first time that a new transport tool puzzled us. In Egypt over 3,600 years ago we seem to have been quite surprised when, after over 700 years of dominance in our region, and no change in weaponry, our armies fell to some illiterates from the north. We even invented a new word for what they came in on: ‘the horse.’ Just as with the railroad, and the car, the horse went on to change travel, trade, cartage, communication, exploration, migration, farming, and war—not just there but all over the planet.
But such horse-driven changes took millennia. That gave us time to adapt, and thus accept the horse as a given. It took ages for us to invent the spoked wheel, the chariot, the saddle, the stirrup, the horse collar, the horseshoe, and such. Further, once the horse had trotted into our lives, it couldn’t keep changing. We couldn’t invent anything to make it gallop twice as fast—or be twice as strong—on half the hay.
The period from 1820 to 1920, though, was vastly different. Our new transport tools weren’t oat-fueled and muscle-driven, so their workings were much more exposed to our tinkering. But that just meant that none of us could have foreseen the changes triggered by our own cleverness. Compared to the horse-drawn world we had long been used to, changes were too diverse, too intricately linked, and too different from anything we could possibly expect. Even more importantly, the tools themselves changed too fast for us to predict what could happen next. Sure, we made the tools; and yes, we collectively decided how we would react to them; so, given time, we might well have been able to figure out their consequences. But they came too fast, so they were too strange. As far as we were concerned, they may as well have fallen from the sky.
Still, once we lived in a steam-driven world, some of us could predict cars. A Jules Verne could, and did, do it—in 1863 (except that we simply wouldn’t believe him, so he couldn’t publish). After all, a car is just a horseless carriage. Call that a first-order prediction. Not many of us can do it, but a few can. Some of us might even have predicted gasoline stations and motels—after all, stables and inns had existed long before. Also, both smog and drag races might have been within our foresight, since neither air pollution nor horse races were new. Toy cars, too, we might have guessed, for kids in Iraq, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome had played with toy chariots millennia ago. But who among us could have foreseen highways? Traffic lights? Billboards? Suburbs? Gridlock? What about police sirens? Parking lots? Parking tickets? Jumper cables? A global oil industry? How about drive-ins? Those are second-order predictions. To foretell them we would first have to foresee cars, then foresee the network effects of having millions of them, like roaches skittering out of a kicked-over garbage can. But perhaps a very few of us might foresee bits of that. An H. G. Wells could, and did, do it—in 1901 (except that many of us couldn’t believe him). But then who could have predicted drive-by shootings? Demolition derbies? Fast-food joints? Music in our cars? Talking maps? Canoodling in the back seat? Increased genetic mixing from easier transport over longer distances? How could we foresee such futures if we don’t think that our food, sex, and violence habits could change? Or if we can’t also predict computers and satellites? Or if we don’t even know about genes? Those are third-order predictions. Forget Nostradamus. They’re impossible for any of us to foresee.
For instance, in 1900 in the United States, a prescient article in the Ladies’ Home Journal predicted that by 2000, cars would be cheaper than horses, and homes would have air conditioning. True. But it also predicted that homes would have opera piped to them over the phone. At the time, it was obvious that we would use Bell’s new telephone thingamajig to transmit music. We all thought that—including Bell. Gray, who started patenting his ‘talking telegraph’ the same morning as Bell, gave it up at first because all the experts agreed that it was a useless invention. Similarly, Edison thought we would use his new phonograph whatchamacallit to transmit speech. Marconi thought we would use his new radio doohickey to transmit Morse code. The Lumière brothers thought their new cinématographe doodad had no commercial future at all.
Our tools aren’t just stigmergic, they’re also synergetic, and our network is ecogenetic—and thus recursive, and so non-linear. What our tools are for changes as the network that they embed themselves in changes. And that changes as they embed themselves in it. We thus develop a tool for one use, but only later do other uses become clear to us. We figure out how to make precision cannons that don’t blow themselves up, then only later do we see that we can use the same idea to make precision cylinders for more fuel-efficient steam engines—and the world changes. We use those steam engines to build assembly lines for guns, and only long after that do we figure out how to make cars the same way—and the world changes. We build a few cars for the rich to tool around in, then sometime after that we discover that farmers would find many practical uses for cheaper ones—and the world changes. We wire a town to power light bulbs, and only after that do we think up fridges and washing machines—and the world changes. We put wireless in for cell phones and only then will other devices come to roost in the new network—and the world will change.
Our future tools will almost surely have similar network effects—and their changes will probably come just as fast, if not faster, and their effects on us will almost surely be just as vast, if not vaster. Thus, we’re presently developing warbots for our own short-term, short-sighted reasons. Only later might we notice that they might also make cheap orbital construction crews. Why risk lives and spend vast sums launching food, water, and air, when future bots don’t need such things? Cheaper energy might be one result. But in such a military-surplus world, such bots might get ever cheaper and ever more capable. So how long before some of us are arming knockoffs as walking bodyguards? Or as tiny flying spies? Or as remote thieves, muggers, snipers, or maybe even rapists? Similarly, what might our world become if self-driving cars grow to be so much like horses that we could leave them anywhere and have them find their own parking—or their own way home? But then, why own a car at all if we could just summon one any time? What happens to the car industry if the number of cars plummets? Or again, we’re presently developing smart walkers and cars and planes that are useful in war and that can move us and our goods around. But how long after that before some of us build smart flying toasters full of Semtex and also remotely commandeer all hackable driverless vehicles in staged attacks to kill our own leaders from miles away? And how long after that before our leaders never leave their bunkers, militarizing their rule and exploding their surveillance from a million automated wiretaps to a trillion tiny roving cameras watching our every move, tumbling us back into a feudal age? We don’t have such things today—but not because we can’t afford them—because we don’t have a trillion eyes to watch them. What happens when smart machines can? That’s a roach motel we might blindly stumble ourselves into and never be able to get ourselves out of, just as we probably stumbled into farming without quite knowing it, 12 millennia ago.
In sum, we may be aware of what we’re doing individually, but not what we’re doing collectively—at least not until after the fact, sometimes long after. We as a group may act, then only later notice that we acted. Today, though, it seems like we have to try and look ahead because so many dangerous things might happen to us if we don’t. But we’re now in the strange predicament that the more powerful our tools get at helping us try to do so, the less far we can foresee.
This is a different world than the world we inhabited up to 1800. In a network, our ability to foretell our future falls as our matter and data transport speeds rise. When that happens, reactions in our network speed up, which means that it’s getting denser and thus reacting faster. Beyond a certain network density, as we invent more new things, we can invent ever more new things, and can spread them ever faster. As the number and variety of our tools rise, the diversity of our network rises. As we link up more of ourselves and our tools, our reactions grow faster and more linked. So both our density and our diversity rise. That then blurs our future more and yet more, because what we’re really putting to work is our cleverness. Get that into our tool-invention cycle, and speed goes up but understanding goes down. At high enough speeds, everything blurs. Everything we predict—including this prediction—and all implied predictions herein—will be wrong. All we can hope is that maybe we can catch some of the more obviously wrong ones before it’s too late.
Brain and Brain, What Is Brain?
Our future is already very foggy, but it’s likely to get foggier still the closer we get to building synthetic brains—because if we succeed, we would then, presumably, build lots of them and use them for all sorts of strange things. But when that might happen is itself foggy.
The brain isn’t an organ like the heart, or lung, or kidney. A heart, to a first approximation, is a pump. We spent centuries figuring that out, then decades working on synthetic ones, yet still we haven’t perfected one—but at least the goal is now clear. What, though, does the brain do? If we knew just what our brain did, and how it worked, maybe we could lash together the first crude synthetic one fairly quickly. But we know so little that getting from here to there isn’t like following a road; it’s more like being lost in a maze.
It isn’t even clear that synthetic brains have to work the way our brains do. Cars didn’t have to work just as horses did, nor subs just as fish did, nor planes just as birds did. We spent centuries trying to imitate birds before the combustion engine came along and we found another way to fly.
Even before we get to building whole brains, the fogginess of our future might increasingly flow from the network consequences of our near future mental tools, for some of them are already quite strange.
For example, we’ve trained a ball of 25,000 rat neurons to fly a (simulated) fighter plane. We’ve wired up monkey brains to control robot bodies halfway around the planet. We’ve put pleasure-center implants into rats to control their movements. We’ve learned how to remotely control implanted sharks. Ditto for beetles. We’ve mated a silicon neuron to 14 lobster neurons, and the lobster neurons can’t seem to tell the difference. We’ve tapped into the brains of cats, seeing the world much as they see it. We’ve begun to do the same for our own brains, including partially predicting the content of dreams—but with scanners, not implants—just as we’ve already put brain implants into patients who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, quadriplegia, and other problems. We’ve also put in brain implants for the deaf, and are beginning to do the same for the blind. We’ve read live rat thoughts as they move through a maze for simple yes or no decisions, put rat brains into robots, and in 2007 we simulated part of a mouse’s brain in a supercomputer.
However, it may be quite a while before we can craft brains that can compete with ours. Take that mouse simulation. It modeled about eight million neurons’ worth of brain. But a mouse has around 71 million neurons. Also, the model was crude; it was more of a sketch of a mouse brain than a real one. It was also not real time—it took seven seconds to produce one second of mousy thought. Plus, that slow simulation of a sketch of a piece of a mouse brain wasn’t linked to anything—no mouse eyes, no mouse whiskers, no mouse paws. It also seemed to be catatonic.
Further, the machine it ran on weighed 100,000 pounds. It cost $100 million U.S. It burned $100,000 a month in electricity. It was about an acre wide and it cooled itself with over 6,600 tons of air-conditioning equipment. It computed more than a stack of laptops half a mile high, yet still it was seven times slower than the blob of goo in a mouse’s brain. Also, a real mouse’s brain is just a quarter of a square inch or so across—and, when inside a mouse, it will reproduce itself on a diet of crumbs.
By 2008, a more accurate mouse simulation pushed the number of neurons to 22 million, but it was over a thousand times slower than a real mouse brain. By 2009, another sketch simulation pushed the number of neurons to one billion. But our brain has around 86 billion. A supercomputer trying to mimic that today would cover many acres; its yearly electricity bill alone would be around $3 billion U.S. By 2015, a yet more accurate rat brain simulation dropped back down to 31,320 neurons. That’s a chunk of brain tissue about the size of a grain of sand. But the project cost over a billion dollars. And scaling it up to one of our brains may need a supercomputer that’s a billion times faster.
That would be bad enough, but what really makes a supercomputer hum is its high-speed internal network. Its nodes are now so many and so fast that we’re desperate for faster ways to share work and shunt data from node to node. What’s the point of doing lots of work really fast over here, if it takes longer to spread the result than it would to just redo the work over there? So we’re trying to figure out new kinds of machines where computation (mainly addition, subtraction, and comparison) happens in hubs scattered more or less everywhere, and communication (data-flow) between those hubs, or clusters of such hubs, happens more or less all the time—much as our own thinking network has always had many thinking nodes plus many transport links between those nodes. In other words, we’re now trying to build things that are more like real brains.
But why bother, when we could produce a new brain in just nine months using homemade tools? Well, there’s money to be made and power to be gained if we succeed. And the price of computation fell about a trillionfold from 1940 to 2012. It’s unclear whether such price declines will continue, but if they do, startling abilities may be within our reach.
That seems more likely to be true given that our knowledge of the brain is rising. For example, today we can put someone under a brain scanner and tell them a joke. “What’s the difference between a lawyer and a bucket of pond scum? The bucket!” We can tell when the brain gets the joke. We can also tell if the brain finds it funny. And we can tell the difference.
Different parts of our brain seem to care about different things. Some care about faces, not bodies, while others care about bodies, not faces. Some care about the motion of faces, but not the emotion in faces. Some care about spaces but not the objects in them. Others care about objects but not the spaces they’re in. Some care about number shapes while others care about number concepts. There seem to be many such parts—perhaps at least thousands, maybe even millions.
So you’re talking with a friend and your brain receives signals from your ears that it decrypts as ‘ba.’ Perhaps some parts of your brain start guessing ahead: Baby? Bathwater? Bassoon? Baboon? Meanwhile, other parts may be trying to fit each guess into the context of the conversation. Yet others may be analyzing your friend’s mouth shape, eye gaze, head tilt, hand gesture. They’re trying to guess what’s being said now, or what might be coming next. Out of all that chaos emerges perception. Thus, if your brain thinks your ears hear your friend saying ‘ba,’ but your brain thinks your eyes see your friend’s mouth saying ‘ga,’ what your brain perceives is ‘da.’ Your brain might even think that it’s heard the whole word before it’s uttered. All that takes about two-tenths of a second. Then in another two-tenths of a second or so, your brain begins cuing up what to say in reply. Then, once it has enough word pieces lined up, it begins to tense the muscles in your vocal chords to start producing a reply.
That constant dancing ahead works for emotion, too. Thus, when your eyes detect signals that your brain deciphers as a face, within about four-tenths of a second it starts subtly altering your own facial muscles to mimic what it’s seeing. It also analyzes that mix of facial muscle tensions to guess what emotions it might have been feeling had it contorted its face in that particular way on its own. From that, it may be guessing what emotions might be scrawled on the other person’s face. Your brain can thus use your own face not only as a way to broadcast what it’s feeling (or pretending to feel), but also as a sort of plasticine doll that it’s always remodeling to try to guess what some other brain (and perhaps even it itself) is feeling.
The mere act of detecting someone else’s emotion can trigger an echo of that emotion in your brain. If you see, or even just hear, someone laughing, your zygomaticus major facial muscles (which contract when you smile) respond. Just gripping a pencil in your teeth can make you happier, since doing so contracts the same muscles (among others), which forces a smile, which your brain then interprets as happiness. Similarly, if you see, or just hear, someone crying, your corrugator supercilii facial muscles (which contract when you frown) respond. It may thus be true what the song says: When you smile, the world smiles with you. But it’s not true that when you cry, you cry alone. We all cry with you.
Your brain’s constant, high-speed guessing and testing seems to be common to much of its detection: What’s she saying? What’s he feeling? Is this tasty? Is that a tiger? Millions of years of question-and-possible-answer have brought us here. That’s why this sentence jumbled your brain read it still can. Yuor brian aslo cna raed thsi mispsleled snetecne. Simly, yr brn cn stl rd ths sntc evn tho mny of its ltrs r msng. And long before your brain finishes this boring sentence, it has already guessed how it might... end. Your brain can even, you know, sense-make, er, make some of, this, um, you know, even if it trails off in mid-sent... er, because it’s, um, more how we normally talk, when we forget bits of what we want to... then go back and repeat, you know, that bit about making sense, your brain can? Each of us is a Sherlock Holmes of the world we live in. (Of course, Sherlock would be bored only detecting missing cats or chronic jaywalkers, so try this: obscurantism or outrecuidance produce otiose or orotund obnubilation, hence obliquity and obfuscation.)
That division of labor inside the brain isn’t just true for sense-making; it seems to be true even for will. For instance, you can act, then only later notice that you acted. That is, your brain might decide to do something several tenths of a second before it’s aware that it’s going to do it. Most of your brain’s parts do their stuff mostly below, beside, behind, or beyond your awareness. You would only get in the way. Perhaps then you aren’t captain of your ship, but more like a passenger on it. So rather than the Star Trek image of a captain on the bridge (if there even is a bridge in the brain), maybe such a captain’s time might be mostly spent making log entries, trying to keep up with whatever the craft just did.
Perhaps the brain controlling the body is something like a squabbling committee trying to control a puppet. Since the committee may take too long to come to a joint decision before pulling the puppet’s strings, various members might just decide for themselves, then pull strings. Or the puppet may itself, somehow, reach up and pull its own strings. Then, when other members notice the puppet’s actions, they start scrambling to come up with a story explaining why the puppet is doing whatever it’s doing. Sometimes, to come up with that story in real time, they might simply be making stuff up (at least until better data shows up). They have to integrate their guess about why the puppet is doing whatever it’s doing while the puppet is doing it so that they have a smooth and ongoing ‘story of you.’
If so, what you think of as ‘you’ may only be the part (or parts) of your brain that tries to make sense of what the rest of your brain is up to, just as your brain as a whole tries to make sense of what another person, and the world as a whole, is up to. Maybe it knows more about you than ‘you’ do—or even than ‘you’ want it to. Perhaps ‘you’ aren’t so much you but a self-telling story—inside a daydreaming meat robot with a million contending controllers, nearly all of them mute. If that turns out to be even vaguely true then the most memorable part of you maybe isn’t so much the robot but the story.
If that sounds weird, suppose there really were only one ‘you,’ and suppose that ‘you’ were really ‘in charge.’ Were that true, you would have to direct your body through every thousandth of a second step of building a baby inside you—or of building 50 million sperm every day. You would never reproduce. Just to see, your eyes have to dilate, so sphincter and dilator muscles in your irises continually tense and relax, just like in expensive autofocus camera lenses. Falling asleep, fighting a cold, having sex, chewing gum, even just breathing—all those actions are just as complex. Perceiving is just as complex—as is making a memory, recalling, thinking, dreaming.
We still know very little about the brain, so all this is just guesswork, but we can at least say that when you’re walking, talking, having fun storming the castle, the impression that you’re sensing everything around you, that you know your own desires, that you’re in control, that you’re in fact ‘you’ may all be wrong—or at best, shorthand for something far more complex. Your actions, your talents, even your thoughts, may result from a boiling tumult of inarticulate urges, canned responses, and choreographed, long-rehearsed mental and physical sequences. Plus, on top of all that might be the you thinking about yourself, and the you thinking about what others think about you, and the you thinking about what you think about what others think about you, and the you thinking about what you think about what others think about you....
In sum, as we delve deeper into the brain it’s beginning to look at least a little like a swarm. No one part may be in charge—or if so, not for long. Instead, it might be a diverse mass of specialists in a densely linked and ever shifting network. Regardless of what may be happening outside, they all may be chattering away about whatever just happened—or whatever they think just happened—or whatever they think they think just happened. That endless gossip somehow helps us make and maintain a model of reality. Perhaps all of us surf on top of an internal ocean of decision-making, almost all of it done for us. If so, that dense and diverse network makes us us.
If that’s true, we might well build one something like it—one day. But when? Building one may not be so easy if we also have to understand how it works—or worse, if we first have to understand how ours works—or perhaps still worse, if it first has to understand itself. So, likely, none of that will happen first.
For instance, for decades we’ve known that a certain tiny worm, just a millimeter long—about as long as a pencil dot is wide—has just 302 neurons. We know many things about it: not just its neurons, and how they link, but much else besides. And in 2015 we discovered some of its rote dynamics for certain movements. Yet we still can’t always tell what it will do.
Just as with a termite colony, what we want is a detailed model of the worm—a stimulus-action map—so that we could tell that if we poke it here, it will react there. We know all the worm’s possible stimuli (this smell, that taste, the other touch, and such), and all its possible actions (move forward, turn left, lay an egg, and so forth). And, unlike a termite colony, we already have what looks like a mapping between stimuli and actions (its neural network). But that map is really many maps, all smooshed together. And we don’t yet know how many maps there are, nor how they smoosh together.
To see part of why, imagine that the worm’s neurons are like train tracks, with trains representing neural signals. The tracks link to each other at various points with switches, which can move trains from one track to another. Where a train goes depends on how the tracks link, which depends on the switches. So how all the switches are set may determine a unique way for trains to run on the network’s tracks. So, to figure out the mapping between stimulus and action (and thus know what the worm will do), we don’t just need to know how the tracks are laid out in space (what track links to what track right now) but also how the switches change over time (what track will link to what track later). The network’s structure is embedded in space, but its dynamics—its patterns of changes—are embedded in spacetime.
Those dynamics are hard to figure out because train traffic can change the network, and thus alter the shape of future train traffic. Unlike real railroad tracks, these tracks are choosy—and their choices can change how much they link, or even if they link. Each track might receive many trains from the tracks that currently feed it, but it’s fussy about whether it’s going to send trains to the tracks it currently feeds. To decide that, it does a computation (again: mainly addition, subtraction, and comparison)—based on its state and how many trains it gets. So while it might get lots of trains, it might send none on—or it might even send trains without getting any at all. Further, a track might start paying more (or less) attention to any tracks that happen to feed it just before (or after) it decides to feed other tracks. Also, a train traveling down a track may trigger changes in switches—and not just on that track, but even on distant tracks. And how those switches change may depend on how the switches were set recently, or perhaps even deep in the past.
So, like a supercomputer’s nodes, the worm’s neurons compute and communicate, however, merely talking to each other might change how they can talk to each other. Their mere chatter can change their architecture. This is a train set that can remodel itself.
Hence the worm, in response to stimulus X, might take action Y right now, but two seconds from now, in response to the same stimulus, it might take action Z. Instead of continuing to feed, it may flee—or lay an egg. It thus ‘makes decisions’—but no single neuron, nor even some specific set of neurons, may be deciding. In a sense, all the neurons together are. Depending on how they’re wired, and what’s in the world, a single neuron’s decision may affect the decisions of many other neurons, which may affect how they’re wired. Context, internal state, and history—all may matter. So, at present, the only way we can tell how the worm will behave is to actually watch it behave.
We, like the worm, aren’t just the atoms in our brain, nor the molecules they compose, nor the neurons those assemble into, nor even the current linkages between those neurons—those are all physical things, and are slow to change. We’re also the dynamic linkage patterns between those neurons, and the even more dynamic patterns of neural activity humming along those dynamic linkage patterns. Everything in the system changes, but the pattern within the pattern may be the fastest-changing, most evanescent, most fluid, most flexible part of us. That might be the only thing changing fast enough to both record and also erase events, if not at the speed of light, at least at the speed of thought.
If mere chatter can change architecture, whenever we talk about the world, the world might change around us. Perhaps that happens because the system sacrifices permanence for speed, trying to think as fast as possible—so as to not become lunch for something that can think even faster.
That’s rather like choosing to write on wet sand, just where waves break on the beach. Writing on water is easier, but impermanent; writing on dry sand is more permanent, but harder. Writing on their border lies in between. But while the next wave will wipe some words away, that gives a fresh surface for more words—so if words are to have any effect, somehow they must affect the shape of the beach itself, and thus future waves, thus engaging the system in some form of recursion.
That ceaseless chatter needs all the rest as housing, and some of it cascades down to the more permanent parts over time, but if we’re anywhere in particular, we may be mostly there—in the chatter. That would be where we most seem to become self-writing patterned distortions moving through spacetime—sentences that exist only for as long as they can write themselves. Thus we may be as much the story as the story-teller.
This is all just guesswork, but as we learn more about our brain, the chance that we might—one day—build, or, perhaps more likely evolve, a synthetic one at least approaching it seems high, assuming we want something that complex, but the chance that the first few (dozen? hundred? thousand? million?) will work like us, or like anything we intend, or even understand, seems low—because we don’t even understand ourselves.
Assuming we do get one, though, what might bring it from a catatonic to a vegetative to an alert state? Then must it, like the worm, and us, sleep? If it does, will it dream? Shall we treat it as male, female, neuter—or something entirely other? Will it need emotions? Could it be hypnotized? Might it be epileptic? How about narcoleptic? What if it’s imbecilic? Schizophrenic? Psychopathic? What about if it’s mendacious? Salacious? Delusional? Suicidal? Or how about our movie favorites: Homicidal? Genocidal? Omnicidal?
The more complex it gets, the more concerned we’ll be about whether it could develop an internal model of itself—that is, whether it’s becoming self-aware. But could it ever really know about itself? And if it does, and we know, will it know that we know? Will it know that we know that it knows that we know?
Could we even tell if it were about to become something we don’t want? If we could, how might we justify turning it off, or somehow lobotomizing it? And if we do, would we be ready to work through the mountain of paperwork and other fail-safes that, presumably, would by then surround the act of destroying it?
Of course, those are all fantasy questions. It’s far easier to describe a rainbow than it is to explain a rainbow, far less create a rainbow—let alone a rainbow that one day might itself be able to create more rainbows. Today we’re mostly still in the first stage—the painter—but we’re drifting into the second—the scientist—while beginning to think about edging into the third—the engineer.
Over time, we’ll likely build lots of special-case brain-like machines. But none will be as complex as one of ours. At least, not for a long while. During all that time, though, we’ll keep linking them, and ourselves, up—thereby thinking that we’re thus gaining some new scale of understanding, while actually just increasing the depth of our misunderstanding of what we’re really doing. As those aggregates get more complex we may better understand each one of them, but we’re unlikely to fully understand the networks they compose. Today’s computers are our new steam engines, and now that cars are becoming rolling computers we get inside, and planes are flying computers we get inside, and buildings are big computers we get inside—and computers are things that get inside us—we’re just at the beginning of what they are going to do for us—or rather, to us.
For example, one part of our brain, the hippocampus, seems to help us manage our memories, and we’ve already built a synthetic one, although so far only for rats. If we one day have a plug-in hippocampus, maybe it needn’t only replace lost function. It might become an upgradeable memory. We might alter it to add richer memories, or help retrieve old memories, or backup fond memories. But if we could store memories outside the brain, we might pool them, analyze them, rewrite them. If other brains could relive them, or at least train themselves to understand them, we might even buy and sell them.
One day, with suitable tools, we might remotely control many machines, or make powered clothing that display our ongoing brain states at parties. If so, augmented reality would become just that—reality. Uses in schools, offices, and factories might then become routine. However, the first commercial application of such brain interfaces might instead be in the bedroom. Maybe we’ll start sharing a partner’s senses during sex, or feel a lover’s touch halfway around the planet—no attachments necessary; batteries not included. Someone is also sure to record a chipped person dying, then sell the recording on the black market.
But what might it mean to learn a language if you could buy a plug-in for it? How might schools change if you could buy more memory or realtime group insight? Are your memories yours if someone could subpoena them in a court case against you? If you’re then sent to prison, might that also mean having to have your electronic self turned off? What might you do when the company that built your brain’s add-on hardware goes broke, leaving you with just the meat brain you were born with? Or how about when the company that pays for the brain-augments that you need to do your job fire you?
Get a heart transplant and you remain you. But how much of your brain do you upgrade before there’s no line between you and the machine? How much do you upgrade your brain before there’s more than one you in there? When your body dies, do we shut down the synthetic part of you as well? Is a copy of your brain you? Does it have human rights? Can someone destroy it and just pay a fine, as if it were a car or a horse? And if it arranges to kill someone, is that murder, or death by misadventure?
If you could buy a cheap and safe implant (or helmet or circlet or drug or whatever) that enhances your love for your spouse, yet you refuse it, what would your spouse think? If you could flip a switch and tumble into a dream state, while remaining otherwise aware, would you become more creative, or more unstable? If you could watch your brain on a screen as it works, would you ever do anything other than fiddle with its knobs? If you could play your brain like a piano, would your feelings lose their power to move you? Would you be any happier were rapture on tap, like water from a faucet? Would you ever leave home? Or bother to eat? Would you come to think of others as just crude and uncertain ways to generate in your brain the feelings that you desire? And if the feeling of being in love, or in the presence of the sacred, or the urge to laugh, or the edge or orgasm, is something that you could mix with a dollop of triumph, a dash of amazement, and a hint of terror, as if mixing up a new ice cream flavor, would anything at all matter to you?
One day some of us might carry parts of our brains in our pockets. What would we be when we can ask someone if they’re out of their mind—or if they’ve lost their mind, or changed their mind, or given someone a piece of their mind—and mean it literally? Will it matter if all its parts aren’t made of meat? What might we make of a room full of people who’re still trying to run a company bare-brained? Would that be the new nudism? Or the new romper room? In such a world, what might become of the bonds between all of us—even our richest and poorest? Today, regardless of our differences, we still have much the same brain. What shall we do if normals share the planet with beings who see them much as we today see a fish in a bucket of water? What kind of bargain could we strike with someone to whom even our best poker face hides our feelings about as well as toddlers fib? What love for us could someone feel if they can so easily predict our reactions that to them we act more like spiders, or maybe dogs? Could we even be pets? And how will such beings relate to each other when they can one-up each other with an upgrade that merely cost more money? What will limit how alien they become, and how fast?
We have trouble enough with common physical differences. What shall we be if we can turn on this and turn off that, feel whatever we want to feel, imagine whatever we want to imagine, become whatever we want to become? What will keep us together? What would link our groups into one species? In what sense might we still be ‘human?’
To such airy nothings, whether synthetic or ‘human,’ we would then be trying to give a local habitation and a name. Such things, if they come to exist, would be like but unlike us. If we do enter such a world we would be facing a whole other, and much stranger ‘uncanny valley.’ They won’t ‘look funny,’ but they sure will ‘act funny.’ Looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a... goose? However, while to us, interacting with them may be mere diversion; to them, it might be sheer survival. And love looks not with the eyes but with the mind. There’s no art to find the synthetic mind’s construction in the face—but maybe they would easily see through us, yet we wouldn’t see through them. Are we ready for such a world? Could we ever be?
Of course, if we do make any such things, we’ll get used to them—given time—and, just as trains and cars did, they’ll change, too—and probably quite fast. But however much we learn about ourselves from building them, they may never truly be us—and we may never truly be them. We’re just not smart enough to catch up on over half a billion years of makeshift neural engineering. And whatever might be smart enough to do that, won’t any longer be ‘us.’
Although we can’t know where we’re headed, or even whether we’ll survive long enough for it to matter, our growing knowledge of the brain, our growing data-flow and mental aids, and our growing deployment of smart tools suggest that we might be nearing a phase change in machine intellect. Various writers call it the singularity. But whether our machines get vastly smarter soon or not, they and their offspring are making it cheaper and easier for more of us to think together. So in our nearer term, we might both enhance more of our brains and link more of them in metaconcerts—maybe.
However, as the various surprises in our transport transitions from 1820 to 1920 suggest—were a spike to happen soonish, nothing we can imagine now can truly prepare us for what might follow. Most of our predictions will be wrong—for how could we foresee the potrzebie, when we don’t even know about veeblefetzers yet? And even the few stabs in the dark that turn out to be right, we wouldn’t believe, anyway.
The radical thing about such a possible future isn’t so much a brainpower spike but the likely effect it would have on our tools—and, on one particular tool-augmentation tool: namely, our brainpower itself. For, almost surely, one of the things that we would use our newly liquid brainpower on is making our brainpower even more liquid, and the consequences of that seem quite unimaginable.
One thing does seem likely, though. The various kumbaya futures being sketched today about a future brainpower spike—whether via smarter machines or smarter metaconcerts, or both—may not be all that likely. For if there indeed is a spike, what would we use it for? To paint prettier landscapes and write longer sonnets? Or to get up to our usual monkey business? Namely: Have more fun, get more sex, win more fights? And of course: compete against each other to have whatever it is first, to have more of it, and to make it grow faster still.
So, yeah, maybe our brains and machines might one day become digital plankton in a new ocean of thought. But we won’t suddenly stop competing. So in that ocean there would, almost surely, arise the analogs of shrimp, sardines, and herring living off the plankton; then tuna, mackerel, and sharks living off those; then perhaps even whales. If so, how might the whales relate to the plankton other than as feedstock? But, like the kumbaya futures, it’s just as easy to generate such apocalypso stews; they’re just more of the usual: Drop in some suitably jaded characters, season with angst, apply heat, et voilà.
None of the above might much matter were a spike to take a thousand years to get here. That would give us time to adjust. Even a century might be long enough. But what if it takes even less time? Perhaps 50 or so years? Then what?
Whether a spike happens soon or not, massive network forces are already in play. As we get richer, food, water, and resource prices will likely keep rising—since we don’t yet have another planet to drawn on and we probably can’t get smart enough fast enough to make that unnecessary. Add to that a vast oversupply of low-skill workers, and a vast undersupply of high-skill workers. That likely means, for instance, vast pressure on our schools to change—a lot. Nothing, except perhaps our vast changes in the 1800s, has prepared us for such massive change in such a short time.
Our financial networks, too, probably aren’t ready for what’s coming in even our very near future. Papering over a near financial collapse in 1982 only made the 1997-1998 calamity more likely. Scotch-taping up the 1997-1998 financial calamity only made the 2007-2008 crash more likely still. Jury-rigging the 2007-2008 financial crash only makes a coming catastrophe near-certain. That cycle likely won’t change until there is serious hardship—or real bloodshed. Even then, our boom-bust cycle likely won’t change.
In sum, our industrial phase change didn’t end a century or so ago. It’s still happening. By 2030, about 1.7 billion more of us will have shoved ourselves into our cities. By then, we’re going to need half again as much energy as we burn now. We’re going to need half again as much food. We’re going to need a third again as much clean water.
Now that we’re more than half-urban, our millennia-long agrarian age is ending and our urban age is beginning. We’re now fleeing the countryside to the tune of about 1.2 million a week. Our cities are exploding, our numbers are spiking, our industries are spreading, our trade is rising. But so is our debt service. Our rich world is aging just when our poor world is getting richer, and thus is demanding more. That rising demand for luxury goods—like meat and cars—coupled with shrinking (human) workers in rich lands, is likely to strain many of our financial arrangements. Unless cheap metal hands spread fast enough to replace our aging factory hands, our presently rich lands likely aren’t going to continue to fund their aged at present levels. And without enough money, or with a broken global debt system—or both—our presently poor countries likely aren’t going to enrich all of their poor fast enough to stave off real unrest.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of a billion of us still can’t read—and two-thirds are female. Almost a billion of us are still hungry. Over a billion of us still have no clean water. Over two and a half billion of us still don’t have good sanitation. Over three billion of us still live on less than $2 U.S. a day.
We may be headed for a world by 2050 or so not of universal wealth, but of near universal poverty. If so, though, that ‘poverty’ might be of a scale of wealth that we today can’t easily imagine, because it would be supported by a mountain of machines that don’t yet exist. And while ‘wealth’ in that world might be rare, it may be so extreme that it might drive its possessors right off the human scale. However to get there we would first have to survive what might be a bumpy ride.
Today, even with over seven billion of us alive, our planet still has huge physical resources—way more than even our projected peak of nine or perhaps ten billion could need, even if we were all rich—if we have the time to figure it all out. But given what little time we may have left before our current pressures converge, the question probably isn’t how we’ll do it, but how many millions, or perhaps hundreds of millions, of us may die before we adjust.
Will we discover enough new stuff, and build enough new tools, and change enough of our policies fast enough to avoid major shortfalls? If we don’t, millions of us are probably going to die outright. But even if we do, likely it will have to be through some radical new tools that billions of us aren’t yet ready for. The chance of displacement, and subsequent conflict, may be high. Dislocation of all sorts will likely be common. If so, anger will most likely rise. Further, our new resource demands are rising just when some of our old resource base is shrinking—forests, topsoil, clean water, oil. On top of that, as industry spreads, we’re now using up so much planetary resources so fast that climate change might add uncertainty to what we can rely on in the decades ahead. Anger plus uncertainty often equals conflict. We thus may be headed for a new golden age, but before we get there—if we get there—we seem to be coming to a boil. As our stresses mount, we’re likely to fracture along our usual lines. Many local wars, and perhaps even world war, might well be ahead. We seem to be headed into crisis.
Crisis? What Crisis?
A possible near future world war? Surely that’s crazy talk. We’re going through a historically rare explosion in both tools and trade. Surely that can only mean more bonding between more of us? Besides, we’re getting seriously rich now, compared to past times. We now know so much more and have so much more that a general war can’t possibly happen again. Plus, with today’s weapons, a world war might well mean national suicide, if not species suicide. We aren’t that stupid. (Are we?) And we’re much nicer now, too. (Aren’t we?) But, for at least some of our groups, this isn’t the first time that all of that has happened—nor is it the first time that all of that has been thought.
In the 50 years following 1860, northwestern Europe, North America, and Japan experienced an abrupt and historically rare explosion in tools, wealth, power, transport, trade—and weaponry. In 1897, Jan Bloch, a banker and railroad tycoon, after spending 12 years trying to work out what all that might mean for warfare, wrote a book. In it, he predicted that although the last major conflict in Europe dated back to 1870, were there to be another one, millions of conscripts would be fighting. Such a war’s huge cost would drain even the richest states. That would force economic failure, civil disorder, and probably even revolution. It would be the world’s first total war. Today’s network insights hadn’t been thought up yet, but still he spoke as if describing a network’s unintended actions rather than those of our scheming leaders. “Your soldiers may fight as they please,” he wrote, “[but] the ultimate decision is in the hands of famine.”
Bloch’s forecast was unusual not just for what he said, but how he said it. Instead of our usual talk about fighting the good fight, or defending the peace-loving Dingdong from the ever encroaching Doodah, he based it on our rapidly rising rate of tool change. He ignored all our usual arguments. “I am dealing not with moral considerations, which cannot be measured, but with hard, matter-of-fact, material things, which can be estimated and measured.” He looked at rates of rifle fire, bullet penetrance, and ricochet woundings. He examined railroad logistics, finance, and taxation. He studied the latest long-range artillery, smokeless powder, food supplies, credit, banking, inflation....
He concluded that were war to break out in Europe, death rates would be so high that after the first hotblooded clash, armies would refuse to attack. They would dig in, eyeing each other across vast fields of mud. The fight would then turn into a meat-grinding slaughter by long-range guns. There would be no quick, decisive battles, no gallant, heroic charges. Further, the war’s cost, in both blood and treasure, would exhaust all combatants. On war’s end, the victors—nearly prostrate—would demand unpayable compensation. The vanquished—actually prostrate—would fail to pay. Both would then likely succumb to revolt. Plus, he said, if Europe continued to spend crushing sums on arms, world power would inevitably shift to the United States and Asia.
His 3,084-page book is nearly forgotten today, but at the time, Europe boggled. Summaries of it spread widely. Parts of it were translated from Polish to Russian, French, German, English, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish. Partly because of that—but mostly because Europe had been arming itself to the tune of a billion dollars a year for the previous three decades—Europe held its first ever Peace Conference, in 1899. That year, 27 countries signed a piece of paper saying that war was bad. To the delegates, it was obvious that top hats, tailcoats, and shiny, patent-leather shoes were more than a match for machine guns, ironclads, and heavy artillery. They told the press that “a little good faith and sincere efforts” would see them through.
Nor were the diplomats alone. All over Europe, military lips curled at Bloch. “[A]ll that trash written by M. Bloch... heralded nothing but disaster. War is essentially the triumph... of one will over a weaker will.” Europe, once a pipsqueak, now bestrode the world. Obviously it did so not because of its new industrial tools, but because of its sheer manliness. Bloch left no room for honor, bravery, and leadership, they said, and those decided most battles—not the railroad or the cannon. He was a mere banker, they said, so what could he know about heroism? His book was bad for morale, they said, so it couldn’t be true. He also said unmanly things—like the spade would be as important as the gun. He even dared say that both the bayonet and the cavalry charge would be pointless. They riposted that: “the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge and the terror of cold steel.”
By 1901, Europe was an armed camp, and Bloch, near death, wrote that “The facts... run too strongly counter to the vested interests of the most powerful class... [for] reform. And this I foresaw from the first. What I could not foresee was the stubbornness which not only recoiled from taking action but set itself to twist and distort the facts.” Then he died.
Europe continued to arm. War of some kind was clearly coming. So in 1907 it held another Peace Conference. This time, 44 countries signed a piece of paper saying that war was bad.
But nobody in Europe much worried. Most writers and journalists there sided with the diplomats and generals against Bloch. For too long in Europe had war been mostly about machine gunning spear throwers in far-off lands. (Then baptizing any survivors and stealing their ivory and rubber, and anything else not nailed down.) Only a few writers, like Joseph Conrad, saw deeper into our heart of darkness—although in Europe at the time we took his 1902 novel as atmospheric adventure, not self-absorbed selfishness. So hundreds of war yarns, and thousands of newspaper and magazine war predictions, painted mostly rosy military futures for Europe. All those paper wars resembled the real war to come about as well as Gilligan’s Island resembled real castaways. Among Europe’s writers, only H. G. Wells accepted Bloch’s analysis. But even he couldn’t bring himself to accept Bloch’s conclusions. Then came 1914.
Just before what Wells called “the war that will end war,” he woke up to reality. He then predicted a future global war in which we would use planes to drop nukes on cities—31 years before Hiroshima. However, as with Bloch, while lots of us read him, most of us couldn’t believe him—especially after 1934, when Albert Einstein himself said he didn’t think it possible. That’s Cassandra’s curse—to be right, but about things so upsetting that we can’t believe them.
Wells then set himself to deflect what he saw as our mad slide into the pit by writing a 1,324-page history of our species. In it, he concluded that history had become “a race between education and catastrophe.” Like most everyone, he assumed that our leaders were in control. So he thought that our problem of dealing with avalanching tool change was chiefly that our leaders were fools. So all we had to do was oust them and everything would be fine.
In 1919, right after Europe’s first attempted suicide, many of Wells’ readers wanted to believe that, too. However, the war’s winners then did just what Bloch had said they would do: They forced unpayable demands on the war’s losers.
By then, the signs of what was about to happen next grew clear to an economist, John Maynard Keynes, who wrote a 298-page book predicting that those unpayable war reparations would soon tumble Europe into an even more destructive war. He said that “the near destiny of Europe is no longer in the hands of any man. The events of the coming year will not be shaped by the deliberate acts of statesmen, but by the hidden currents, flowing continually beneath the surface of political history, of which no one can predict the outcome.”
The Times sneered that Keynes “has rendered the Allies a disservice for which their enemies will, doubtless, be grateful.”
Keynes’ book, like Wells’, like Bloch’s, sold well. But while the feeling began to grow that nobody was in charge of the runaway train that was Europe, that didn’t change its course. As mass jobloss and hyperinflation began to eat central Europe alive, pressure built toward another big war. Perhaps one final spasm of rage and greed would do the trick. So in 1928, 54 countries rushed to sign another piece of paper saying that war was bad. This time it would work. This time for sure. Then came 1939.
By 1945, Wells, near death, wrote his last book. In it, he said that “this world is at the end of its tether.... Our world of self-delusion.... is like a convoy lost in darkness on an unknown rocky coast, with quarrelling pirates in the chart-room and savages clambering up the sides of the ships.” Then he died. Meanwhile, Keynes, near death, concluded a conference of 44 countries by noting that “If we can so continue [to work together], this nightmare... will be over. The brotherhood of man will have become more than a phrase.” Then he, too, died. Maybe 44 more signatures on one more piece of paper would finally work the rough magic needed to drown the book of war.
By 1948, though, a new world war, a cold one, was on. That year, George Orwell, who had named it a war, and a cold one, was dying as he finished his last novel. Like Wells, he, too, was frustrated after being lauded then ignored. His last tale thus echoed another—a famous one from a century before—whose protagonist spat as he died: “[F]rom hell’s heart I stab at thee.” But while many of us in the decades to come, not just in Europe and its descendants, but all over the globe, read his book, after we put it down we all told ourselves the same tales as before. If we all want peace, how come we have war? It must be our political or military or financial leaders. They must be stupid, or insane, or greedy—or just plain bloodthirsty. It’s nothing to do with us. Many beliefs that are still common today were formed in our distant past—long before the 1900s. None of us asked whether what we each want is indeed the decider of what we all do, especially in times of rapid tool change.
Curses! Foiled Again
Looking back at the 50 years between Bloch’s book in 1898 and Orwell’s book in 1948 is like watching a slow-motion video of a car crash. Everything seemed to have unwound according to some yet unknown physics. Maybe if we had understood that physics we could have prevented it? But probably that’s just our usual hindsight bias. It’s only when looking back that we can focus on those moments that best show off our talent for striking when the irony is hottest.
For those of us living through that period, there was nothing ironic or inevitable about the future that barreled toward us. It was a half-century of one complete surprise after another. There was no plan. Or rather, there were many plans, but they never survived contact with each other. It was our usual confusion and muddle and panic, except that because of rapid tool change the consequences of our mistakes were so much more extreme than before that we didn’t know how to cope.
We don’t need to assume that we, or our leaders, had suddenly become abnormally stupid, or insane, or greedy, or bloodthirsty. We probably were the same then as we always were. But we were so blindsided by the strangeness of our newest tools, and by the rapidity and depth of the network changes that they triggered, that we couldn’t accept how much they could, or would, change our lives.
Tool change was too swift and too vast for us to realize that that alone could make a difference. We couldn’t unstick ourselves from our place in time and see ourselves more from the outside. The idea of us and our tools as a swarm was too alien to conceive, and too upsetting to accept, because that would mean that we weren’t in control of our fate.
So, instead, when our leaders do something, we take activity for consequentiality; and when they do nothing, we take lethargy for strategy. We thus routinely confuse consequence with cause, chaos with cunning, and coincidence with conspiracy. To face the future with any confidence at all, we wish to believe that we know what we’re doing. Considering how wrong things can go, we don’t want to hear that we’re making it up as we go along. We want policy, not truth. We want guidance to make our decisions, for decide we must. What we choose matters, so we wish to believe that what we intend also matters. We want a simple, linear, intended world. So our leaders do their best to appear to be in control of one. After all, what’s a circus without its barker? Perhaps that’s why reading too much political history in one go can make one think about a list of things one would do only do when drunk, and on a dare.
So, unable to abandon our age-old ideas of how we work, after each bloodbath we started the same old blame game once again. We again said many of the same sorts of things. Again, we let many of the same sorts of things happen. And again we found ways to blame them on someone—and thereby disown them. Each time we turned to our age-old question: Who’s the bad guy?
We’re still doing so today. We today like to think that we’re fair and kind and smart and farsighted—not at all like our greedy and cruel and stupid and shortsighted selves just a hundred years ago. But that’s what we always like to think. We always look back and say that we did this or that terrible thing for these or those noble reasons. It was sheer coincidence that whoever had the best guns ended up with the best butter. It’s the bad guys—the demons, the spirits, the gods, or these days, the politicians, the generals, the magnates, all the twirling mustachios behind the scenes—who made us do whatever it was that we ended up doing that we’re so ashamed of now. It could never be us. And it’s because we think that—because we today think that we could never be bad guys—that we will always carry the capacity to be tomorrow’s bad guys.
Thus, a century ago, millions of us in the Congo died for ivory and rubber while most of the rest of us didn’t even notice. Instead, we bought ivory knickknacks: billiard balls, piano keys, knife handles, chess sets, hair combs, bracelets. We also bought rubber novelties: golf balls, waterproof boots, hot-water bottles, false teeth. Why not? We didn’t hear any screams when we paid; we didn’t see any blood on our purchases. But we’re different today, aren’t we? Except, oops, millions of us in the Congo are again dying, this time for tantalum and copper, and still the rest of us don’t much notice. Instead, we buy tantalum in the form of electrolytic capacitors for the things in our cars, pockets, handbags—the phones, cameras, computers, and game, music, and video players. We don’t hear any screams; we don’t see any blood. Today, millions of us are slaves while the rest of us buy cheaper goods. Millions of us are starving to death while the rest of us give a few farmers in rich lands billions of dollars. Millions of us are dying from curable diseases while the rest of us spend billions of dollars on cosmetics and diet aids. If we ever learn of such things, we want to turn the page, flip the channel, click away, swipe off. We wish to deny any link between anything we dislike and the things we buy, the ways we live, the choices we make. We aren’t monsters, are we?
So, obviously, ‘they,’ not ‘we,’ did the things we now dislike, and ‘we,’ not ‘they,’ did the things we now like. If some big sprawly networky thing, which we are mere parts of, but which we neither control nor even understand, did both, how could we guide our behavior in the future? How could we assign praise and blame for our actions so as to encourage those we like and discourage those we don’t? How could we separate ‘them’ from ‘us’ so that we feel good? So we choose to believe that this time, somehow, we’re no longer slaves to flattery and folktales. We imagine that we no longer suffer fools to have power—or that if we sometimes do, it’s easy to find non-fools to do the same job. We prefer to feel that now, at last, we aren’t just better off, we’re just plain better—that we are, at long last, different. This time it will work. This time for sure.
Well, maybe. But suppose one of our countries decides to build up its arms for a long period—perhaps because it’s a small island country next to and competing with a big continental country in the 1700s, or because it’s a huge continental country far from and competing with another huge continental country in the 1900s. Its military might then rearrange itself to ensure that resources continue to flow its way. But surely that must require political or military or financial bosses who plan, or at least intend, it? Well, maybe yes, but also maybe no. Serious money, and thus power, would be involved. So logs get rolled. Pork gets barreled. Horses get traded. Gerrys get mandered. Over time, any of the military’s weapons contracts, training facilities, research grants, and such that aren’t aiding some power broker somewhere is more likely to get axed by some other power broker somewhere else. So the initiatives that survive will mostly be those that have, for whatever reason, oozed into the right fiefs. Thus, many power brokers, to keep their place at the arms-money trough, or through inter-service rivalries, would have a stake in its survival. So, over time, conflicts over its continuance would tend to go its way. Thus, it would keep transforming itself—but not at random—and not because anyone in particular necessarily planned that. Rather than something that either we or our leaders intend or control, it would be more like a slime mold that keeps rearranging itself to best fit its ever shifting resources—just because any subparts that don’t will die off.
If that’s true for any country, then few of its leaders are ever likely to admit it, for they know that if we don’t know what they’re doing, we can’t know what they’re doing wrong. But Dwight D. Eisenhower did just that for his. In 1953, soon after becoming president of the United States, he noted that “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.... This is not a way of life at all... it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” Then, in 1961, on leaving office, after eight years of trying to limit military spending—and failing—he stated that “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors.... we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”
In the 50 years between 1961 and 2011, what changed about that slime mold? Did our rising wealth change it? Did our rising schooling change it? Did our rising computer use change it? Did even the end of the Cold War change it? The Soviet Union, crushed partly by its attempt to keep up the arms race, collapsed in 1991. However, around the planet in 2003 we still spent about $2 million U.S. a minute on arms. (That’s about $1 trillion a year; the United States alone spent about half that.) By 2008 we were spending around $2.8 million a minute. (That’s about $1.4 trillion a year.) By 2010, the United States still had over 662 bases in 38 countries. By then, its bases in Europe and Japan had been there 19 years since the end of the Cold War, and 65 years since the end of World War II. All the slime mold’s original reasons for existence had long since disappeared, yet it kept growing, surviving one tragic peace scare after another. For it, the worst thing that could happen is for a hated foe to die—another must be found, and quickly. It must always find new foreign quarrels to busy giddy minds.
It thus seems unlikely that our conflicts will vanish anytime soon. They’re too valuable—both to us as sellers and to us as buyers. From 1999 to 2006 the United States sold $124 billion U.S. worth of non-nuclear arms. Russia sold $54 billion; France, $27 billion; Britain, $18 billion; Germany, $16 billion; China, $11 billion. Of those arms, Saudi Arabia bought $46 billion; China, $17 billion; Egypt, $11 billion. The United Arab Emirates, India, Taiwan, and Israel each bought about $10 billion. Further, by 2008 our planet sported over 23,000 nuclear warheads. Of those, around 8,000 were deployed. Of those, about 2,000 were on hot standby, ready to launch in minutes. Of those, just 100 might start a nuclear winter. So: We’ve loaded the gun. We’ve put it to our temple. And for over 70 years now we’ve been waiting to see if we’ll pull the trigger.
However, while it’s true that in 2008 we were spending $1.4 trillion U.S. a year on arms, that was only about one dollar in every 40 that we by then made. Further, we had already survived over a half-century without nuclear suicide. So far, no two nuclear-armed nations have fought seriously—at least, not directly. (The United States and Britain fought China, but not after China went nuclear. The Soviet Union fought China—and even just after China went nuclear—but not seriously. India fought Pakistan, but not after both went nuclear.)
Also, our increasingly lethal weapons aren’t themselves why we kill. If they were, we would have killed each other in far greater numbers at the end of the 1900s than at its start. Instead, our killings did the reverse—they fell. So we must suffer each other to live for reasons other than mere inability to kill. Besides, we don’t need nukes to kill; pointy sticks will do, too.
It’s still true, though, that, as our computers shrink and spread, the price of our ever more powerful weapons keeps falling. So even though we spend a declining proportion of our wealth on them, and even though we haven’t yet chosen to use them anywhere as much as we could have, we could still kill each other in ever vaster numbers, were we to choose to do so. Plus, there’s always the chance of accident. If we keep flipping the coin, sooner or later it won’t land ‘heads.’ But is it we who’s flipping the coin?
What we may be figuring out about cells, termites, brains, food webs, cities, markets, and our growing global network, suggests that they, and networks like them, all seem to have roughly similar aspects. What matters most about them isn’t how big they are, nor what they’re made of, nor what their parts may each wish—if they wish anything at all, or even have brains to wish with—but the interactions of those parts in terms of what creates what, what supports what, what talks to what, and how fast. If such reaction networks are recursive—that is, if they close in on themselves—and if they grow to be dense and diverse enough, they can cross an interaction threshold and act and react so fast that non-linear network forces—perhaps ones needing odd names like autocatalysis, synergy, stigmergy, ecogenesis, closure, and autopoiesis—may matter at least as much as any possible leader, plan, or belief.
But were such a network view to apply to us, as we today integrate globally and increase tool production, then we would all be dolts compared to what we’ve made. Controlling it would be like trying to work a colossal machine that we’ve made but that we barely understand, by pulling unmarked levers we can barely see. And that wouldn’t fit our age-old political, military, economic, and religious beliefs about how we work. Thus while our swarm may exist, and may be alive, in some sense, and may be becoming more important to trying to figure out what’s going on, we may never accept it. It’s hard to accept that as individuals we might not be the most important thing on the planet. After all, we’re inside that thing. As Marshall McLuhan once noted someone saying: “We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”
Bloch was right to say, in effect, that swarm forces can matter more than mere wishes. But he couldn’t imagine just how strongly we would reject such an idea. Wells, too, was right to say that we’re in a race between education and catastrophe. But he couldn’t see that in a time of rapid change, which itself depends on schooling, learning can never grow fast enough. In such times, the more it grows, the faster we get to change things around us, thus needing yet more learning to understand them. Keynes, too, was right that if only we would agree that war was now pointless, that war would indeed become pointless. But he couldn’t accept that we never would agree, even though we’ll happily sign any number of pieces of paper saying that we do. Orwell, too, was right to blame our tools for our growing power to oppress each other. Unlike Wells, he didn’t merely blame our Napoleons and O’Briens for how we were changing. However, like Wells, he thought that we could get around them by choosing less-shortsighted political arrangements. But Conrad was surely right to say that the heart of darkness lies within us, not our tools or political arrangements. But even they failed to see our swarm. Our tools, especially since 1800, seem to make group forces matter at least as much as our individual desires.
Thus, regardless of what we may come to accept about networking, we may not stop polishing our medals and sharpening our swords anytime soon. So perhaps ‘destiny’ is a word that we can never learn how to spell, no matter how many times we hear it pronounced. If so, perhaps the sword shall devour for ever and our near future may well be horrorshow, droogs, horrorshow. Just as in our past, first may come the demonizing, the cheering, the marching—but then will come the running, the bleeding, the screaming. All our groups, rich and poor alike, may thus be about to burst apart like a runover dog. We seem to be giving birth to something, but we don’t know whether we’re the baby or the placenta. Today’s seemingly hard problems may be merely the last sip of air before the scream.
In a Dark Night with Anxious Love Inflamed
Are we parts of a global reaction network so complex that it might even be, in some sense, alive? If so, is that network speeding up whatever it’s doing? And if so, might that mean the end of us? History gives us some partial answers to all three questions: Maybe yes; Almost surely yes; and Who knows, but maybe no. Maybe. Because we’ve been here before. This isn’t our first drastic network speedup. Nor is this the first time we’ve had such thoughts. Nor are we only now noticing this particular one. About all that might be new is a possible linkage to what we’re now piecing together about networks.
In Britain at least, we had our first real suspicion that something was up at least as far back as 1816. That’s when we first really began to experience the shock of the new, and it drove us a little crazy. We’ve been crazy ever since. The previous year, Britain’s decades-long Napoleonic wars had just ended, and the Tambora volcano in Indonesia had just blown its top. That eruption, the most violent in history, belched 36 cubic miles of soil into the atmosphere. Temperatures fell worldwide. In northern climes, the following summer was mostly just more winter, but at the time none of us knew why. In Britain, the sudden and inexplicable cold and dark led to famine. That, plus the war’s end, plus government corn price supports that kept landowners rich while starving the poor, meant the threat of revolt. But it wasn’t just those forces set in motion by volcanoes, famines, and wars that scared us. That was normal. We had lived through such things many times before. What was truly different this time around was a wave of new and mysterious ideas and tools.
In the summer of 1816, long after the dead were counted and the rubble ceased to shake, two poets, Byron and Shelley, fled scandal in England. Making for the supposed calm of Switzerland, they took with them 18-year-old Mary Godwin and her 17-year-old step-sister Claire, who was secretly pregnant with one of Byron’s daughters. (Although he—after, probably, impregnating his half-sister—had married and fathered yet another daughter.) Claire was also, probably, one of Shelley’s lovers. Mary, meanwhile, had so far had two babies with Shelley. (Although he, too, was married and already had two other kids.) They and their servants then settled around Lake Geneva for some sex and poetry.
Thanks to Tambora’s aftereffects, though, instead of a soothing Swiss summer, they met with huge lightning storms. One night, trapped by yet another volcano-belched storm, they challenged each other to write ghost stories—appropriate reflections of the electric weather. Mary, once again pregnant, still unmarried, still threatened by whatever was going on between Claire and Shelley, and haunted by the memory of waking to find her first baby dead beside her, would go on to spin her story into a tale of blighted birth. It began and ended with a monster trudging through icy wastes. Our usual grubby dilemmas, plus death and destruction half a planet away and a year before, had birthed a story that still speaks to us today: Frankenstein.
But Mary’s fable of a mismade future was only one straw in the winds of Britain’s gathering storm of change. By 1816, half of us in Britain had already shifted to non-rural jobs, just as today over half of us around the planet have. New industries were springing up everywhere and the air was choked with crazy news. Folks were going up in balloons, talking about steaming across the Atlantic, magically preserving meat in cans, spookily lighting up the streets at night, and inventing new ways to make this and that. Others were discovering new islands, new planets, new animals, new elements, new limits for the age of the planet. Still others were digging up inexplicable monster bones, or using the new wonder, electricity, to eerily reanimate the dead. A few even dared suggest that we had sprung from something like an ape. Whole new fields, like chemistry and geology and paleontology, were condensing out of thin air.
With mysterious new ideas beginning to permeate our thoughts, and with mysterious new steam engines starting to energize our world, suddenly we were finding the impossible, thinking the impossible, doing the impossible. Our age-old ways of life started to dissolve like sandcastles in an onrushing wave. Cities were exploding. But so were slums—and along with them, riots. With steam powering vast new printing presses, the number of books published in England per year tripled just between 1800 and 1820. In the same period, jobloss rose, food riots spiked, and a prime minister was assassinated. A plot to kill the entire cabinet, and a riot and massacre, led to harsh crackdowns. Booms and busts came and went like a string of firecrackers.
In 1825, Goethe wrote that “everything... nowadays is ultra.... Young people are excited much too early, and then carried away in the whirl of the time. Wealth and rapidity are what the world admires, and what everyone strives to attain. Railways, quick mails, steamships, and every possible kind of facility in the way of communication are what the educated world has in view, that it may over-educate itself, and thereby continue in a state of mediocrity.”
That year, multiple stock market bubbles popped, thus triggering a huge crash. Then followed a vast financial panic, with 66 banks (a record for the time) closing their doors. Even the Bank of England teetered on the brink; and as the repercussions of that spread throughout Britain’s empire, it led to our first ever global financial collapse. By the 1840s, overestimation of railroad growth led to another huge crash, with railroad stocks falling by two-thirds from 1845 to 1850. New machines and new ideas also sprouted—and, as often, were violently attacked as new terms like ‘journalist,’ ‘scientist,’ and ‘Luddite,’ entered the English language.
Meanwhile, in the 1830s the price of wheat in London had halved as new combine harvesters cut it in Ohio, new railroads trundled it to Chicago, and new steamships ferried it to London. Soon, food surplus from North America competed with food surplus from South America, from Russia, and from Australia. In Britain, the price of farm land—and thus land rents, and thus landed incomes—fell—for 70 years straight. Britain’s aristocracy, having ruled for centuries, found itself with stately homes and hordes of servants that it could no longer afford. As cities exploded and farms imploded, power shifted from landowners to factory owners, without anyone having to do the usual: raise armies and besiege castles. Old aristos, caught in the gears of a new machine they didn’t understand, were crushed as new aristos replaced them. Degrees of cluelessness varied, but nobody, whether rich or poor, had any real idea what was happening, or where it would lead.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single island in possession of a great fortune, must be in want of strife. Across the century, Mary’s world—the cozy England of Austen and Wordsworth and Constable—tattered, then frayed, then ripped apart. Major political battles came and went in 1832, 1846, 1867, 1872, 1885.... But those were mere echoes of earlier volcanic eruptions: in population and cities, in schooling and opportunity, in rural versus urban power, in farm versus factory production.
By the 1890s, Britain was still the richest, most powerful country on the planet, but it had changed and changed again as it stumbled from misjudgment in finance, to blunder in politics, to disaster in war. It didn’t fail merely because of incompetence; the world it dominated changed so much and so fast that it failed even in spite of competence. Then, in 1914, the old world met the new on the battlefield, and in that conflagration, it died.
So although, as early as 1816, it was already clear to a few of us in Britain that something odd was happening, none of us there—or anywhere else on the planet—could have foreseen all that was to come in just 20 years, let alone a century. A millennia-old way of life—built on land and bodies to work it—and a millennia-old way of thought—built on that way of life—was being gutted and renovated from the inside and we all had to live in the dust and noise and confusion. That exhilarated a few of us; but it scared many more of us. What did it mean, this sudden storm of change? Was it going to be fun, with cake and ice cream after? Or shouting and slammed doors, then sent to bed early? Who was bringing it about? What did they want? And above all: How could we make them stop?
Much of Mary’s book grew out of that fear of the future, which is perhaps why her words still live on, for there’s much fear of our future today, now that half of us have shoved our way into cities and the computer is spreading like a virus. Today, we as a species are shifting into what may be an even larger phase change than Britain started into in 1816. Half our species is now crawling out of abject poverty, power is starting to shift everywhere, and a few of us are beginning to talk of maybe upgrading the brain, possibly building machines smarter than we are, perhaps even creating life. A computational volcano is starting to erupt. What will it mean? Despite lots of brave talk, we today don’t know any more than Mary’s small group did.
However, we today could at least tell her little band of poets in Switzerland astounding things. We could tell them why their summer was so stormy, and why boiling their water could prevent the cholera that the bad weather would soon help spread.
To Byron, we today could explain why the steam engine would trigger changes far greater than even he had foreseen. We could add that, despite what he thought, its long-term effects wouldn’t necessarily be bad, even for the poor. We could add a sketch of what it’s like when more than two percent of us could vote. And what it’s like when many of us get over 14 years of schooling—instead of under two years in his time. (In 1995, even Sudan averaged two.) And what it’s like for many of us to live to over 80, rather than most of us dying before our early 40s. And what it’s like when for every person he saw, we see seven, because we produce so much more food. Plus what it’s like when many of our kids don’t have to work, when not only our lords have leisure, when there’s a new thing for many of us called ‘retirement,’ and when the rich don’t always tower over the poor because they’re no longer so much better fed that they’re, on average, five inches taller, and so are almost from another planet.
We today could also explain to him why land prices would fall, why farm hands would disappear, and why nearly his entire class would die, swallowed whole by a new rich—made rich by trade and industry, banking and finance, publishing and journalism. We could also explain how the slaves that his friends kept as draft animals and sex toys would come to be replaced by machines. And we could explain how descendants of those slaves would become citizens of many countries, including his own. We could explain the structure of the moon, the planets, and the stars that he so often used in his poetry. We could also describe engines to get there that he couldn’t possibly comprehend. We could tell him that his only legitimate daughter, who was then six months old, would be involved with a man who would design our first mechanical computer. In time, it would transform into a device that would reboot reality just as much as the steam engine was beginning to do in his time. We could also tell him that both he and that daughter would die at the same age (36), and for the same reason—their doctors would bleed them to death.
To Mary, we today could explain that her mother had died at age 38, 11 days after her birth, probably just because the childbirth doctor hadn’t washed his hands. We could tell both Mary and Claire why nearly all their kids would die young, and we could explain what would kill each of them: typhus, malaria, dysentery, and tuberculosis. We could also tell both of them why over one and a half billion of us today no longer fear such illnesses, and why another three billion of us are moving in the same direction. We could describe an unbelievable future to them where many women could vote, learn to read, get paid, own property, make contracts, write wills, bring lawsuits, not need dowries, burn their corsets, marry in their 30s or even 40s without remark, get divorced, abort legally, buy contraceptives, not have seven or more kids, not fear childbirth, and maybe even go out alone, even at night.
To Shelley, we could expand on his Promethean imaginings by explaining how to give sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, limbs to the halt. We could tell him how to cure the sick, lengthen life, even begin to augment the brain. Perhaps we could even begin to explain how we purpose to build and try to bind both a new Ariel and a new Caliban—and still with no idea what may next happen.
All that we today could tell Byron and Shelley, Mary and Claire. However, while millions of us today are in many ways better off than they were, that needn’t mean that we today are any better—or any worse. Two centuries ago we didn’t live in easier or harder times than we do today just because we didn’t know about microbes and mobile phones. We may have had birch twigs for toothbrushes and goose quills for pens, but that didn’t make us worse, nor better. We’re always in the same pickle, whether our streets have horse dung or our skies have contrails. Yes, we once lacked nukes. But we also once lacked penicillin, too. True, species loss once wasn’t a worry. But legal slavery was no picnic, either. Whether poor or rich, our tears then were just as hot as ours are today, for our chief concern isn’t with our tools, nor with our science; it’s with our never-answered but always-asked question: ‘Why are we here?’
That question, the question of being, is the central one in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He began the book by stating that all of us desire to know. He was half right. We do want to know, especially when young, but as Kant later observed, once we’re sure we know, wanting to know more can be a dare. Despite all that we’ve changed around us since Aristotle’s time, many of us today still appear to believe that we live in some version of his cosmos. He’s 2,300 years dead, but we still haven’t buried him, nor his cosmos, because he was onto something—if not about reality, then at least about us. We cling to our age-old beliefs for a reason. It’s not mere caprice, nor sheer tradition, nor ignorance, nor stupidity. Or at least, not only those. Perhaps it’s because we don’t live on air and food and water alone. We also live on narrative. We need story, we need structure. We have to believe that there is purpose to our lives, for without meaning we may as well crawl into a corner and die.
So we choose to believe that we decide to act, then act. We don’t wish to accept that we could act, then only later notice that we acted. We choose to believe that we live in a world where most events have simple and linear causes, and where those causes are both mostly known and mostly intended. We don’t want, in Auden’s words, the situation of our time to surround us like a baffling crime. But with such assumptions come baggage that we inherited from our forebears, going back far before Aristotle. So if the pace of change does mount around us, phasers will be set on stun. Thus, our hunger for our most popular hand-me-down stories about what we are and how we work seems set not to abate, but to grow. It’s thus not at all unlikely that, no matter what happens, many of us will continue to believe in a self-satisfied, short-attention-span, made-for-TV world, with all its celebrity trivia, political circus-clowns, and insta-mix solutions to our problems.
If we and our tools do indeed form a swarm, then much of the world that we live in today is largely the result of network forces that we shape but don’t control, and, mostly, don’t even understand, and, often, barely even notice. But if that’s true, it’s too untidy—and too scary. So we make up stories about our past. We look back and tell ourselves that we did it all deliberately and that we were always heading to the here and now. Thus, when looking back we often think we see a drama—sometimes a comedy, more often a tragedy, but always a simple linear story with vast and satisfying movements toward a dramatically pleasing end. Snipping and folding, embossing and rearranging, we make that story out of what to us at the time was merely a train of events. Stapled to one point in time, we look back and judge our parents by our standards, not theirs. And if we look ahead, it’s only to imagine that our children will live just as we today do.
Were more of us to come to accept that our desire for wish fulfillment often leads us astray then perhaps we may begin to accept that many of our plans and policies, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how seemingly fitting, might have unintended side-effects. If so, then maybe we might grow a little harder to divide into tribes, and a little more skeptical of our leaders’ glib statements and our own kneejerk responses. We might then make more of an effort to imagine a proposed plan’s various causes and effects more carefully, without quite as much oversimplifying or scapegoating as we do now. Of course, we can never get everything right because we ourselves are part of the problem, but such awareness might help us get a few more things a little less wrong, and that might help us focus on plans a little less likely to go awry. We might then begin to see ourselves a bit more as all parts of one thing.
Well, that could happen. But how likely is such a future? To get there we may have to do more than accept the gifts of science, we may have to accept it as well. But while we have now come to applaud it, it’s a helpmate too aloof to be a playmate. Science gives us facts aplenty, but refuses us certainty. Its facts aren’t even fixed for all time; they’re merely for the time being. It can answer many of our questions, but the one that we most want answered, the question of purpose, isn’t one of them. It tells us that, in its cosmos, we’re adrift on a cooling cinder in a huge, dark, and empty place—a space over 13 billion years old and over 93 billion light-years wide. We aren’t the center of anything, and we don’t matter to anyone. We’re just a band of cluefree primates throwing poop at each other out in the middle of nowhere. Reality is what it is, not what we would like it to be. No matter how extensive our apparatus of happiness, we have no definition, no purpose, no reason for being. Our forebears lived and died in vain. So shall we today. So shall our inheritors, age upon pointless age, like so many spent shell casings spewing out of a generational machine gun firing into a nameless dark. We’re here and then we’re not, and that’s all. In that cosmos, all life is equally meaningless. In that cosmos, every act is equally senseless, and every religion is just another shout into an empty well.
As life-forms, that may be the cosmos we exist in, but as primates, with our emotions still so close to the surface, we can’t live there. Maybe in some remote future a descendant species might, but for us today, still driven mostly by instinct and passion, what we instead need is meaning—meaning relative to us. Nor need that be stupid, for instinct and passion have brought us here over millions of years. Maybe they’ll carry us a little further. (Or not.) So most of us still prefer to live outside science. We don’t know how to not know. We prefer to be certain, even if we’re certainly wrong.
So, we’re likely to keep bumbling along, picking leaders who tell us silly things in firm voices. We want to think that if we don’t know, then at least they know. Someone must contend on our behalf against the demon of uncertainty. Thus, for anyone selling surety, multitudes are always willing to buy. So regardless of what our new science may say—and what our new tools may give—the more things change around us, the more might we seek some continuity with our past, some bedrock to our existence, some story. We know so little that we need a narrative to help us fill in all the blanks. And the more we think that we’ve found one, whenever anything goes wrong the more might we search for a simple answer to a seemingly simple question: Who’s the bad guy?
Perhaps we choose such ways of thought because they combat our fear—the fear that we’re but minor players in someone else’s story, or worse yet, nobody’s story. Perhaps what we choose to believe needn’t be true; it need only be comforting. As Wilde had Miss Prism say: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” It pleases us to feel that we can explain a confusing world. It’s consoling to have someone to blame for the parts of it that we wish weren’t so. If only we could share out blame, then maybe we could do something about whatever the problem is. Those are strong emotional motives to turn the world into an easily grasped cartoon of itself. That can help us hide our worry that we may live in another world—a world wherein, as Stoppard had the Player say: “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”
We’re a scared spitless infant species, with no idea how things truly work, nor what anything is for, nor whether something being ‘for’ anything can ever make any sense. So we have nothing new to tell Vladimir and Estragon. Yes, with our newest tech we could promise them new boots and more turnips and carrots, but that wouldn’t change the essence of their state—nor of ours, for we’re still driven, not just by our urge to survive or prosper (either with or against each other), but also by our need for meaning. Without that, how do we decide how to relate to each other? How do we say goodbye to those we hold dearest when they die? How do we accept our own coming dark, when our own bright day is done? Without reading some sort of human-understandable, if not human-centric purpose into the cosmos we probably can’t read it at all, for it then becomes a shadow-play, a meaningless series of meaningless things. So we keep searching, as did Pushkin, for any illusions that exalt us rather than the ten thousand truths that our science lays at our feet. Despite all our science, and all our technology, all our knowledge is still as thin as moonlight on water compared to all that there is to know and be.
This story of us now ends as it began, and as Mary’s tale ended and began, with our shambling technological monster lurching us into an unknowable future, just as it did when our quest for lunch first started changing in Iraq 12,000 years ago. If we survive our next 50 years, we may have great power, yes, but that wonder is our terror too, for we shall hold our newest bows of burning gold, and steer our latest chariots of fire, with the same rough hands that held stone axes 50,000 or more years ago. Yet while our separate lives, as a dying Keats said of his own life, are sentences written in water, they also might well be part of one self-assembling swarm of self-writing sentences. For just as we each are not just physical things, but also barely physical things—patterned distortions moving through spacetime—so do we each seem to be but part of something else barely physical—a far larger patterned distortion moving through spacetime. For even with our endless idiocy, our cheap ferocity, our unthinking selfishness, wherever we go, whatever we do, we look to each other for definition, for purpose. That’s how we bring meaning to our lives. We look, not just to the living who surround us, but also to our armies of dead, for they suffered and died to win for us the knowledge to make a difference. We today are the flowers that grow on all their graves. We look, too, to our unborn, for they mutely beg us to live so as to make their future lives worthwhile. Our progenitors and our progeny, that’s all we can truly be certain of. Our lives give their lives meaning, as their lives do ours. We have a power behind us and a future before us. Fifty thousand years, two thousand generations, stand behind us. Fifty years, two generations, stand before us. Those are the shoulders we stand on, and that is our meaning, if meaning we seek. That is perhaps all the meaning that we can reasonably ask. Try to live so that it matters. Life is only a moment long and a dream wide. It’s fragile and precious. Don’t waste it with a book. Stop reading. Go outside. Look around. Dare to know.